and just like that

We left.
I am (incredibly!) all moved out.
The house is all boarded up for the summer.
I’ll be back on visits, but this is still, irrepressibly, goodbye.

For now.

the top ten things i will miss

In ascending order:

1. The snow.
Yes, after all that complaining, I will miss the snow. Justalittlebit. In my hometown, two inches of snow is grounds for canceling school. Easily. Virginia just doen’t get that much snow (er, excepting the last couple snowpocalypse years. Don’t know what’s going on there). Snow has never lost its magic on me, and Iowa has been extremely good to my winter wonderland excitement. Here, snow is measured in feet, not in inches.

2. Central Time.
At the risk of sounding really old and uncool, I love that shows start an hour earlier here. I am totally jazzed that SNL is over by midnight and the Daily Show airs at a very manageable ten o’clock. Sometimes the time change works the wrong way — like when I had to wake up at four to watch the Royal Wedding, instead of five like every other normal human — but normally I couldn’t be happier with the earlier hour.

3. The co-op.
New Pi is fabulous. I can’t tell you how — relieved? — I was the first time I walked inside two Septembers ago. The cheeses! The freshly baked bread! The bulk herbs and spices, the sandwich bar, and then, once again, the cheeses! It’s primarily stocked with organics, which I like, but not at the exorbitant prices Whole Foods charges, which I like even more. Plus, there’s just something about being in a co-op. You have a member number; you belong.

4. The downtown/small town thing.
People always ask me what it’s like living in Iowa, and I always make the careful distinction that Iowa City is very different from Iowa the state. As with most most states. Chicago is not like the rest of Illinois. McLean is definitely not like the rest of Virginia. And so it follows, Iowa City is a little oasis of cosmopolitan life in a state (let’s be honest, an entire region, a whole swath of the country) usually associated with corn fields. With such outstanding law, medicine, and especially creative writing programs, it’s more sophisticated than you’d think. But at the same time, it’s a very small town, and retains that coziness right down to the taxi drivers, who have been to that restaurant you directed them to and recommend the bacon-wrapped dates.

5. The trains.
This rates really pretty high on the charm scale. Reliably, several times throughout the day and when we’re falling asleep, the sound of a train horn woo-woos its way to our house. There are train tracks winding their way to, um, somewhere, right through the children’s park at the end of Melrose Court. And there have been many times, mostly in Cedar Rapids, when I’ve had to wait fifteen minutes for a cargo train chug to through. Most people in New York blame their lateness on the trains, meaning the subway; but I’ve been late because of an actual train. I’m not going to lie… it makes me feel like a pioneer.

6. Cheap rent.
I am well aware that I may never again pay such a low price per square foot. I haven’t done the math, but I have spent two years living in a duplex with a lawn, a garage, a porch, three bedrooms, a washer/dryer, a dishwasher, walk-in closets, hardwood floors, and a living room couch the size of most of my friends’ living rooms. I know, factually, that the price my boyfriend and I pay per month is the same as what a New York friend pays for her half of a two-bedroom apartment. It’s going to be hard realigning my shock-o-meter with big city prices.

7. The restaurants.
Particularly Hearth (where we ate Monday night), Shorts (where we ate last night), and Devotay (which we haven’t been to recently, but will be my first stop on return visits). I love these restaurants. They are places I would eat at in any city — even in New City, a big ol’ town filled with some many wonderful, varied dining options, I would stick with these three. Devotay, with its wall of windows overlooking Linn Street, its twinkle lights, its candles and mismatched chairs, has the most fabulous tapas (the grilled zucchini with aioli! swoon!) and paella I’ve ever had — and the most romantic, homey atmosphere. Shorts won me over from the get-go with their locally sourced beef, and has held onto my affection with their enormous list of upapologetically creative, boldly flavored burger toppings. And then there’s Hearth. If my first year in Iowa was all about Devotay, this second and last one has been a lot more Hearth-concentrated, and it’s the one I will miss the most, because I came to think of it as our place. We went when it first opened about eighteen months ago, and have witnessed the menu’s ups and downs — the ascension of their wood-fired pizzas, the sad departure of the ceviche, the return of the fish tacos to B’s utter delight. The last couple times, the waiter (for there is only one) greeted us with a “nice to see you again,” and on Monday said, “I’ll give you your regular table.” Friends, there are few things I love more than being a regular. So I will miss the restaurants.

8. Grilling on our porch.
I know it seems like a small thing, but grilling on our L-shaped porch, with its slightly elevated view of the rest of the neighborhood, is one of the things I’ll most miss. I love it in football season (ie. all of autumn), when the street is chock full of students wearing gold and black t-shirts or overalls or bathing suits, and everyone is loud, happy, and carrying a beer. (Those three things are probably related.) And we’re perched up on the porch, with a big group of friends, and the grill lets out a smoky sizzle when we turn the brats. And then there’s spring, when it’s calmer, colder, most students quietly streaming home from class while we barbecue chicken or grill burger patties, porch swings in hand. It is my favorite thing.

9. The house.
Even though it positively leaks heat, it’s been home for almost two years. I will miss listening to the house settle at night and the creaks that used to freak me out until I realized it was the sound of our neighbors walking around the other half of the house. I will miss our groaning, moaning stairs that double as a built-in security alarm. I will miss the unfinished basement and it’s coal storage room, mostly because I have enjoyed telling people I live in a turn-of-last-century house with a coal storage room, and I will miss the dumb birds who lay their eggs in the nook below the window air-conditioning unit. I will miss the beveled edges of the front door’s glass windows and the way that hot air blowing out of the living room vent makes the fan blades turn. I never got to open the mysterious trunk in the garage. Maybe over a visit next fall.

10. Boyfriend.
Well. I think it’s pretty self-explanatory. This is what I’ll miss the most.

top five things i won’t miss

1. The cold.
Cold, gray, and wet winters that blow in early and linger until first of May: good riddance! (NB: I know it is not actually good riddance, as Williamstown winters are nothing to sneeze at, either. But go with it.)

2. The house’s almost complete lack of insulation.
Which necessitates keeping the thermostat at bracing sixty or sixty-five degrees throughout the aforementioned half-a-year-long winters. The worst part is that these measures only kind of help. The heating bill is still too high.

3. The shopping.
Or lack thereof. There are some (four) very cute women’s boutiques downtown, but otherwise it’s extremely slim pickings out here. I can’t wait to get closer than two hours from J. Crew, Williams Sonoma, and Crate and Barrel, and less than three from Anthropologie, Nordstroms, and so much more. I miss drooling over their window displays and dreaming of the day I’ll be able to recreate a Pottery Barn catalog spread in my rustic-chic beach house.

4. The dearth of weekend activities.
I can’t wait to get back to cities with a lively museum and cultural landscape. I’ve missed having the choice of which museum to explore on a leisurely Sunday afternoon. There is one museum here, and it’s thirty minutes away, and I spent last spring writing an educational guide to it — so I don’t need to spend my weekends meandering through it, too. Oh, and I’ve missed brunch! Oh, how I’ve missed brunch. One of our favorite restaurants, One Twenty Six, just started serving a very respectable brunch; before that, your options were a diner; a hamburger joint; a vegan restaurant; and Blackstone, which does a very nice brunch but is a bit far. All told, it adds up to a very limited choice of weekend diversions. There’s Amana, which is beautiful in September and May (and sometimes October) and enchanting in December… but how many times can you actually visit the Amana General Store and the Amana Woolen Mill? Once a month for two years is rather pushing it.

5. The layovers.
More precisely, the layovers to get anywhere. You can only get direct flights to three places: Minneapolis (takes just as long to drive), Chicago (likewise), and Detroit (which, it must be said, is a splendid airport). I will be one happy kitten when I don’t have to fuss with gate-checking luggage, timing layovers properly, and taking propeller planes.

So there you have it. The top five things I’m thrilled to be leaving behind!

the last week

This is less than the last week. This is the last three days. Shortly after noon on Thursday, when the boys get out of their last exam, B and I will be leaving Iowa — he for the summer, and me forever. We’ll load up the car with his summer suitcases and my life ones, and head east. The first stop — it doesn’t feel right to call it a road trip, since our one stop is two days at a friend’s house, but I suppose it’s a road trip all the same — is at friend Rob’s house in Kentucky. On Friday, we will lay by his pool in the (forecasted!) 70-to-80 degree sunshine. That night, the rest of our friends from Iowa City will arrive and on Saturday, we will go to the Kentucky Derby. There will be floppy hats, horses, and mint juleps. We leave terribly early on Sunday for the ten-hour drive home to Virginia and will (fingers crossed!) arrive in time for Mother’s Day dinner. Monday is B’s birthday, Tuesday we train up to New York, Wednesday we fly to Paris, Thursday morning we arrive in Paris, Friday we train out and then right back in to see my family in Brittany for the day. Saturday, next Saturday, is when the commotion finally settles down and we roll into the rhythms of an extended week in Paris.

So there is a lot of hullabaloo on the horizon.

Luckily, my “Before Leaving” to-do list is in pretty good shape. The car has been duly inspected and repaired, mailing addresses changed, new checks ordered, bills paid, recycling dropped off. It’s really just packing left, and I am one of those blessed but rare souls who loves packing, unhesitatingly unpacks a just-packed bag to find a more efficient roll-and-fold configuration. I’m hoping that, for the last day or two here, I can just float.

a terribly auspicious occasion

With less than 24 hours to go, it’s time for me to admit, with some embarrassment, that I am one of those royal wedding watchers. My name is Natalie, and if I have not sat down and watched every obnoxious TV special on the couple — “William and Kate,” that objectively horrible Lifetime movie, not to be confused with TLC’s “William and Kate: A Royal Love Story,” “Wild About Prince Harry,” “Charles and Di: Once Upon A Time,” and on and on — well, I have probably flipped through them with some passing interest.

Apparently, the upcoming nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton have created much more a frenzy stateside than in England (confirm, anyone?) and on the heels of this realization there’s been a sudden, slightly belated series of articles questioning whether Americans really, actually care about the wedding — or if the constant media coverage has created the illusion of interest where none would have otherwise existed.

To be honest, I find this recent angle of newspaper articles and cable news shows highly irritating. They’re acting a bit above it all, aren’t they? Every time Anderson Cooper or whoever reads a bit about the royal wedding, it’s with both a smirk (“This isn’t real news, our viewers are so silly to care about it”) and wide-eyed ignorance (“Maybe the designer is Vera Wang? Yes, that’s the only designer I know”). Well, listen, CNN, MSNBC, FOX, ABC, CBS, and friends: You’ve sent all your anchors to London. The jig is up. You clearly care, so stop acting like you don’t.

I, on the other hand, am not trying to out-snob the royals, the way some TV reporters seem intent on doing. The earliest televised wedding coverage starts at 2:00 (our time, Central Time, everyone take a deep breath) with MSNBC. CNN and Good Morning America and the rest, total slugs, don’t begin until an hour later. While I am definitely not crazed enough to get up at two in the morning to watch the madness (that’s what four in the morning is for), I will be celebrating in British style when, um, I do get up.

There will be a proper cup of Earl Gray. There will be oat and maple scones, simply because there’s a couple unbaked and frozen rounds just waiting to be baked off for such an auspicious occasion. Since it will be such an early hour, allowing time for second breakfasts, there will probably be cream scones, too, and maybe something wild like strawberry-rosemary scones. We won’t have the traditional English breakfast sides like black pudding, grilled tomatoes, and baked beans, but fried eggs… and sausage… and marmalade and toast, here we come. Silly? Well, perhaps. I admit it. But embrace it!

Are you watching the royal wedding?

the king of fruits

Of course, because it’s me, there was Easter dessert. And it was not themed, either — not in terms of cuisine or holiday animals. (Read: there were no decorative bunnies or spring chicks.) No, instead I made a very yummy, near-summery mango and raspberry crisp.

I came to mango late in life. My first memory of tasting one links with my first week of college in New York: I was walking up Broadway toward Union Square with an enormous group of other freshmen (freshmen always travel in packs, don’t you know) and there was a woman hawking mango flowers. She shoved a whole fruit onto a stick, and after whacking it with a machete (or so has morphed in my memory) for 20 seconds, the skin was peeled and the succulent, juicy fruit carved into petals. It was as big and sweet as cotton candy. A mango lollypop flower.

It seems like mangoes have been cropping up everywhere in the last couple months. “Everywhere,” like “twice in the New York Times,” but bear with me. The recipes are gorgeously enticing. There was a mango tres leches cake the beginning of the month: a white cake buoyed by with whipped egg whites, soaked with a heavy cream/coconut milk/condensed milk sauce, and topped with a mousse-like mango cream and pureed mangoes. I’ve been dying to make it… and with less than ten days to go, I suppose I’d better heave-ho! And then just yesterday, a parade of recipes showcasing the so-called king of fruits: ginger-orange-mango smoothies, shrimp and mango tacos, mango rice pudding…

Well, there will be a time for all that. (Mangoes peak in the next two months.) Sunday night was crisp time. We so enjoyed them, their rich sweetness only deepened and accentuated by the cooking time and oatmeal-nut topping. I know you will too.

Mango Crisp with Raspberries

(Adapted from Cusine at Home magazine)

Serves 2

  • 1/2 lb fresh or frozen mango, diced into 1-inch cubes (1 1/2 cups, or about two mangoes)
  • 1 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp cornstarch
  • 2 tsp lime juice
  • pinch of salt
  • 3 Tbsp quick cooking oats, or old fashioned oats pulsed in a food processor
  • 2 Tbsp sugar
  • 4 tsp flour
  • 4 tsp cold, cubed, unsalted butter
  • 2 Tbsp walnuts, chopped
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup fresh or frozen raspberries

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.

Toss together mango, 1 1/2 tsp sugar, cornstarch, lime juice, and salt. Set aside.

Combine oats, 2 Tbsp sugar, and flour. Cut in butter with a pastry cutter or fork until mixture resembles a coarse meal. Add walnuts and vanilla extract.

Divide mango mixture between two ovenproof ramekins or baking dishes. Sprinkle each with half the raspberries and top with oat mixture.

Bake until topping is golden and bubbly, about 30-35 minutes. Cool slightly before serving.

eating easter

Easter to me will always mean Greek food. And not just because of the lamb, which doubles as traditional Easter fare and, I believe, the most prevalent meat in Greek cuisine (though that is a happy coincidence). It’s because I spent spring break during my semester abroad at a friend’s house in Athens. Four years later, it’s still what I want every Easter.

I didn’t have any particularly salient Easter memories to overwrite. Like many little kids, I spent the week before Easter watercoloring hardboiled eggs, and Sunday morning hunting for little green nests of Hershey’s eggs and my painted ones. But I usually had to be quick about it, or the cats would eat the plastic nest grass. At least they were clever? apathetic? easily distracted? enough to avoid the chocolate.

And so went most of my Easter memories: egg hunting, floral dresses, the true arrival of spring. They’re lovely memories, but there’s nothing especially monumental or ground-breaking about them. But walking from one church to another by candlelight at midnight on Holy Saturday, singing (or mumbling along to) traditional hymns in the company of the entire Greek village, followed by an elaborate one AM Greek feast? That sticks out. That memory has rooted itself very deeply, so the word Easter conjures up not so much visions of Peeps, Cadbury Eggs, and HoneyBaked Ham, as cravings for grilled lamb, blocks of feta cheese, tomatoes and cucumber and olives.

Okay, not so much the olives part. But the idea of olives.

Yesterday, Mr. Boyfriend was kind enough to go with the flow. So we started with some baked pita (incidentally, one of my favorite party tricks) and hummus, and followed with rosemary-rubbed lamb chops with a feta-yogurt topping, olive-less Greek salad, and basil-mint couscous. Not exactly traditional for here, but I think somewhere in the wide world (somewhere I wouldn’t mind being right about now… Mediterranean Sea, Acropolis and all), we’d have fit right in.

the best chocolate chunk cookies

After a party several months ago, I froze the half-dozen leftover chocolate chunk cookies for some future, unknown yet entirely foreseeable occasion when I’d feel like a intravenous shot of fudge. And then promptly forgot about them. I caught glimpses of them every now and then, like when I went rummaging in the freezer for some ice cream or coffee beans, but never thought of, you know, taking them out for a snack. Unthinkably, it seems, I’d forgotten that they were the best chocolate cookie I’ve ever had.

That changed this week. And I’m sorry, I know I swore off complaints about the weather, but I have to break: it’s the past seven days of gray skies, forty-degrees, and near-daily rain showers that drove me to the chocolate. Does anyone else feel cheated out of spring? True, our daffodils are very pretty. True, this month brought a couple truly springlike days, days when grilling felt slightly daring in the chilly-warm weather but the birds were singing. But otherwise, it’s felt like a warmed-over continuation of winter; it doesn’t have that lively spring air, the feel of awakening.

Long story short, it was a dreary Monday afternoon, I was yawning by four o’clock, I made myself a coffee and with the thought, Might as well do tea time right, pulled the cookie bag out of the freezer and blitzed one (okay, two) in the microwave for twenty seconds. I’ve kept it up every day since. I’m a creature of habit, especially habits with three kinds of chocolate.

Here’s the deal with these cookies. You melt together some butter and chocolate chips, and to this add all the usual ingredients — eggs, sugar, flour, vanilla extract. The key difference, of course, is that the foundation, the batter, is already quite chocolatey. Then you stir in the rest of the chocolate chips, so you get those delicious pockets of melted chips throughout the cookie when it’s fresh from the oven (or microwave). AND you top it with chunks of white chocolate. They are fabulous. They even make me perversely grateful for the dismal weather that drove me to them.

Dark and White Chocolate Chunk Cookies
(Bon Appetit Desserts)

N.B. The original recipe calls for half a cup of chopped crystallized ginger. I didn’t include it the first time because I didn’t have any on hand, and in times afterward I wasn’t interested in tampering with perfection. But I imagine the spicy heat of crystallized ginger would make a very interesting, grown-up addition. If you are intrepid enough to try, report back!

Makes about 2 dozen

  • 2 2/3 cup bittersweet or semisweet chocolate chips, divided
  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup (packed) light brown sugar
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 3/4 cup self-rising flour*
  • 1/2 cup chopped crystallized ginger (optional, see head notes)
  • 3 1/2 oz high-quality white chocolate, coarsely chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Stir 2 cups chocolate chips and butter in a small saucepan over low heat until melted. Alternatively, place in a microwave safe bowl and melt in the microwave, stirring every 30 seconds, until just melted together. Cool 10 minutes.

Beat eggs and brown sugar in a large bowl until well blended. Beat in melted chocolate mixture, then vanilla, then flour. Stir in ginger, if using, and remaining 2/3 cup chocolate chips. Let stand 10 minutes.

Drop cookie dough by rounded tablespoonfuls onto prepared cookie sheets, spacing cookies 1 1/2 to 2 inches apart. Press white chocolate pieces into tops of cookies. Bake until cookies look puffed and slightly dry on top, about 13 minutes. Cool thoroughly.

*To make self-rising flour, sift or stir together 1 cup all purpose flour, 1 1/2 tsp baking powder, and 1/4 tsp salt in a small bowl. Measure from this.

wordless wednesday: pea salad

visiting american gothic

A couple weeks ago, I wrote that before leaving Iowa in two weeks, my number one goal was to visit the American Gothic House — the house with that famous upper-story Gothic window in Grant Wood’s American Gothic, which is, yes, a real, standing house in a small, 1,000-person town in southern Iowa called Eldon. And yesterday, with B. in tow, I did.

Eldon was a pretty out-of-the-way destination for Grant Wood, too. He lived in Cedar Rapids — not far from us! — and found himself in Eldon in 1930 for an art festival. During his visit, a local artist offered to drive him around the town (then a booming railroad community), and Grant Wood was captivated by this tiny country home outfitted with such a “pretentious” (his words) window. He asked the owner if he might include the house in a painting (she consented, and promptly cleaned the residence from top to bottom, not realizing he only meant the outside) and drew a quick sketch.

Back home in Cedar Rapids, Grant Wood asked his sister and dentist to sit for the father/daughter portrait. He assured them that they wouldn’t be recognized. His dentist, Dr. B. H. McKeeby, was, and it ended their friendship. When he painted his sister Nan, he elongated her face to further distort her appearance. Dr. McKeeby and Nan were painted separately in his studio — not standing before the house. The artist never returned to Eldon.

It’s not clear what commentary (indeed, if any) Grant Wood meant to offer with this portrait. It’s known that he set out to paint the sort of people who would live in the house with the pretentious window. Some have interpreted the figures’ sour expressions as a satire of the rigidness and narrow-mindedness sometimes associated with Midwestern types, though it seems fairly unlikely that Wood, who adored his early years on his family’s farm, intended such a reading. The painting can also be seen as a celebration of the virtue of hard work and seriousness. Likewise, it’s not clear what the inclusion of the Gothic window implies: was Wood mocking the homeowners’ attempt to make the house look grander than it was, or honoring their effort to insert beauty into their everyday life?

Seeing the house (the real house!) in situ was quite extraordinary. If you look closely at the painting, you’ll note that the patterned curtain in the Gothic window has been swapped out for a gauzy white one. But it is otherwise completely unchanged. There is the same sense of attempted grandeur — a literal window of beauty — in an otherwise plain house, in an otherwise unglamorous town.

You’ve probably already guessed at the interpretation I prefer, if for admittedly sentimental reasons. I like to think Wood made the painting in praise of the farmer and daughter’s grasps at elegance. His topmost gold shirt button, her cameo brooch, the curl escaping her bun, the Gothic window — despite their dour faces, there are these extra efforts, the appeals to the aesthetic, for no real purpose and no functional reason. Just that it feels good to look at pretty things. It’s beauty for beauty’s sake.

So this isn’t exactly sound art historical theory. But it’s what I’m sticking with. Thanks to this quick road trip (the house is less than ninety minutes away), I can check off my number one Iowa goal and feel just a wee bit more connected to to the rolling prairie hills, via this house that has defined the state for so many.

The house center is manned by two grandmotherly sorts, and it stocks costumes for those (aka everyone) wanting to recreate the painting — and add to its already rich history of parodies. And … of course … what would a trip to the American Gothic House be without a photo op?